Ever since Plato mistakenly claimed that when the modes of music changed, the walls of cities shook (in reality, only hairstyles and jackets change—sometimes footwear), eggheads and dumbbells alike have overestimated the power of music—or popular culture in general—to effect social and political change. Still, the news that Neil Young rush-recorded a set of songs, to be called Living with War and containing a song called "Impeach the President," has divided the world into pro and con camps.
Can Neil win this fight against a foe tougher than Crosby, Stills, and David Geffen combined? Pop victories over political culture are unfortunately ephemeral—one would have thought the Village People had preemptively settled the whole "don't ask/don't tell" controversy back in 1979 with their hit "In the Navy;" or that Vince Vance and the Valiants novelty hit from 1980 "Bomb Iran" had spared President George W. Bush one foreign policy dilemma today; or that we would no longer see hate in either Red China or Selma, Alabama. Alas, once the needle returns to the cradle or the CD ends, the wisdom of political pop tends to blow away, almost as if in the wind.
This is not to say that the popular song cannot, under any circumstances, be a useful and delightful combination of aesthetic merit and actual political wisdom. I don't think I've ever learned more in two minutes about what American representative democracy is all about than I did through listening to Randy Newman's "Beehive State", or about the true meaning of the Guevara cult than through the Zip Code Rapists' "Che" ("Che wrote a book/on guerilla warfare/And he set everybody free/We shot a bunch of people/In Topeka, Kansas/Hey, Che/Thanks, Che"). And I've always believed Jane's Addiction's "1 %" is one of the most concise and wise statements about the nature of government I've come across.
But really, what are Neil's chances of turning things around with this new album, allegedly coming soon from Warner Bros/Reprise Records? He did tell CNN that he wanted it to carry a message of togetherness and unification to the American people at large—most likely the most it will only succeed in uniting us in revulsion or boredom. Let's just remember that Abraham Lincoln was the last president brought down by a popular entertainer.
Some obvious pitfalls line the path from political pop to real world change. As with Bruce Springsteen's bitter vet's lament, "Born in the U.S.A.," the music can be hijacked by political forces you despise, such as Ronald Reagan. It can turn into a largely feckless part of a general hip marketing image, as with Rage Against the Machine. It can be covered by Peter, Paul, and Mary.
The least likely result is an appreciable change in the larger political world. Among politically engagé rockers, only M.C. Hammer, who laid the groundwork for Tom Delay with his infectious declaration of an imminent "Hammer Time," and Styx, who averted—so far!—a rock n' roll-banning theocracy, count as successes.
When it comes to pop music, from the most Satanic metal to the most heavenly Christ-pop—and most definitely including the impassioned and political—nothing can be funnier than frank earnestness (though assuredly some things—not many, but some—are funnier than Frank and Ernest). It's a safe bet that nobody joined the Peace Corps after hearing "Dawn of Correction," liberal establishment Spokesmen's answer song to Barry McGuire's hippie anthem "Eve of Destruction,"151;the song merely remains something silly to fill out a modern hipster's mix CD. ("What about the things that deserve commendation?/ Where there once was no cure, there's vaccination/Where there once was a desert, there's vegetation/Self-government's replacing colonization/What about the Peace Corp. organization?/Don't forget the work of the United Nations." Yes, this song exists, and was meant seriously.) "Abraham, Martin and John" or "They Killed Him" inspire more derisive chuckles than tears, despite their serious and well-intentioned subject matter; and even Reason readers, as sensitive as they come, have mocked the heartfelt "Go on Home, You Foreign Communist."
No doubt (OK, given the diminished listenability of most of Neil's recent work, there is indeed some doubt) this record will move many an individual soul, and yes, soul really matters to me. Private life problems and pleasures become all the more important as the specters of war and dysfunctional politics haunt the land. The real problem is, no matter how many citizens are unhappy with Bush—even unhappy enough to raise their voices in angry song—there isn't really a damn thing any of us can do about it now, except count down the next 33 months with increasing impatience. While disapproval of the war in Iraq grows, the powers that be just dig in deeper and plan the next mideast vacation for American troops.
Bush, if he were even aware that the Heart-of-Gold man was glowering at him with tarnished eyes, might well call out "Lynyrd Skynyrd, thou shouldst be living at this hour!" But is there a single Red State Rocker out there—Neil Cavuto lacks sufficient rockitude, sorry—to remind Mr. Young, as he's putting down our president, that an American Man don't need him around, anyhow?
Of course, the very existence of patriotic protest music says something heartening. Yankee-Doodle-Dandy America-boosters can point with pride to the fact that this is the kind of country where you can hire 100 union musicians to sing about impeaching the president in the hallowed studios of Capitol Records—where Frank Sinatra, the greatest American erotic politician of the last century, downed highballs, hung his jacket over music stands, choked back manly tears, and charmed the babes, all with impeccable phrasing—and no jackbooted thugs or Mr. Robotos will break down the studio doors and drag you to the jailhouse (though many will assuredly make fun of you for it).
Neil proudly pointed that "union" detail out to CNN. Ironies and turnarounds are very much the meat of this delicate folkie/clumsy rocker, Reagan-lover/Bush-basher, mocker of welfare mothers and lamenter of the plight of the homeless, a man who gets wistful thinking of both Kent State and Montezuma and grants that Richard Nixon's got soul. Now the writer of the git-r-done post-Flight 93 "Let's Roll" (which advises, in phrases that Neil might have overheard during a Bush foreign policy powwow circa 2002, "No time for indecision/We got to make a move… You got to turn on evil/When it's coming after you… Let's not let our children grow up fearful in their youth") hits us on the title track of Living with War with "I take a holy vow/to never kill again/Try to remember peace." He is a writer, and one shouldn't presume that all his songs are written in his own voice. So I won't make too much of the fact that he wrote the funniest, most contempt-dripping song about unionized musicians ever written.
Of course, it's America, dammit, and our artists, native or Canadian, right or left, for the president or against, crunk or backpack, England Dan or John Ford Coley, are free to say whatever they want about whomever they want, president, potentate, or pope. And keep saying it, over and over. And see what good it does them.
So why do pop stars return again and again to the political, despite the risk of ridicule, misunderstanding, artistic failure, and ineffectuality? The answer may be found in that old joke about why dogs lick their balls: because they can. Alas, political pop is usually just as productive as the activity at the center of that joke.